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April/May 2007
Know Your History
The Satya Interview with Diane Beers
By Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

 

Diane Beers

I had the privilege of hearing Diane Beers, Ph.D, speak at the 2006 “Strength of Many” conference in Los Angeles. To say that I was absolutely blown away is an understatement. Diane, a professor of history at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, teaches courses in social, environmental, African American, civil rights and women’s history. Her other areas of research include labor history, queer history and animal rights. It is her work in AR that brought her to the conference to speak about her new book, For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States (Ohio University Press, 2006.)

Never before has the legacy of the animal protection movement in the U.S. been examined. This meticulously researched and eloquently written book traces the history of organized animal advocacy in the U.S. from its earliest beginnings up until 1975, when Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation appeared on the scene. Diane’s book tells of our history, introducing us to the amazing leaders—most of them women—upon whose shoulders we stand. It was their courage and conviction that helped shape the animal rights movement as we know it today.

Diane is an activist in the truest sense of the word, raising awareness about the links that tie together all forms of oppression. Her scholarly attention to detail, respect for subject matter and fluid writing style make For the Prevention of Cruelty an enjoyable and riveting read. I was honored to speak with Diane Beers about her book, which I recommend not only to animal activists but to anyone who has ever loved a dog or cat.

Can you talk a little about what prompted you to write For the Prevention of Cruelty?
The book really represents a union of beliefs that drive me both professionally and personally. Like many folks who support or participate in animal advocacy, I have a lifelong love and appreciation for nature and the nonhuman species that share the world we live in. I was the kid who brought home stray dogs and cats. I was the college student who pondered becoming a veterinarian or environmental activist. I am now the adult committed to animal advocacy.

While I have always had compassion for all creatures, I have also been passionately interested in social justice movements. I believe teaching is a form of activism and many of the courses I teach focus on these movements and their history. In graduate school I realized I could combine all my interests and make them part of my professional life. I ended up studying women’s rights, African American history and environmental history. Those areas of study led to my dissertation, which led to this book.

You use the phrase “historical amnesia” to refer to the fact that contemporary animal activists—and society as a whole—know nothing of the legacy of animal activism in the U.S. What are some of the effects of having “historical amnesia”? Why is it so important to know our legacy?
Animal advocacy has an amazing history, yet it is essentially an untold story. African American activists will often say, “A people without a history is like a tree without roots.” Indeed, if activists don’t know the history of their cause, they can have no sense of their movement’s struggles, long-term strategies, achievements and heroes. In addition, they can’t promote their long impressive movement to the public, and their opponents—the meat industry, medical research industry and the government—will fill the void. They have been the ones most aggressively and successfully constructing negative images and outright myths of animal advocacy that the public often believes.

For example, by promoting our history, animal activists could smash the myth that we are misanthropes—that we don’t care about humans and are weirdly obsessed with animals. History shows this to be patently false as most animal advocates were involved in multiple social justice movements. This myth comes from our opponents who have done a better job of controlling the story, the history and the perceptions of animal advocacy. If animal advocates made it part of their mission to get our true history out to the public, I firmly believe it would benefit the movement overall.

The link between animal rights and other social justice movements is clear in the fact that so many early advocates were involved in many social causes, particularly the abolition and suffrage movements. However, it seems animal advocacy has become more isolated from the causes with which its early founders were linked. Why do you think that is? How can bridges be created?
This is a crucial issue. I think it is changing slowly, but [our isolation] can still divide rather than unite different causes. Awareness of the linkages between different forms of oppression and injustice seems to be key. To paraphrase ecofeminist thinking, “oppression is a circular affair.”

We need to educate ourselves more on the connections between various social justice causes and take the lead in educating fellow activists. A good way to do so is through coalition building. Work with other movements and make them aware of the ties that bind their cause. I believe once caring people become aware of an injustice, they want to do something.

In terms of the deeper root cause of “why,” I think animal advocates have done a better job of confronting the issue of speciesism. By the very essence of their movement, animal advocates must examine humans’ roles in relation to nonhumans and that, in turn, often leads them to question the entire ideology of human superiority. Movements that focus more exclusively on human issues are, I think, much less likely to even consider the concept of speciesism; thus, there emerges a kind of social justice blind spot that prevents them from bridging their human cause with that of nonhumans.

I think our use of language reveals so much about our perceptions and values. I appreciate your very thoughtful use of language to refer to animal advocates and wonder if you could talk about why you use the word “humanitarian” to refer to early activists?
I use the word humanitarian because it reflects how early activists saw themselves and referred to themselves, at least in part. We must remember the entire historical context. These were folks who certainly challenged the very bedrock of human superiority, but one of their goals was also to change humans morally. They wanted to make human society more moral and humane, thus they were humanitarians in the sense that stopping cruelty was also about bettering humanity. Ending animal cruelty was directly connected to human welfare. In addition, “humanitarian” could be applied to someone involved generally in social reform. But they also referred to themselves using many other terms including protectionists, humane agents, zoophilists, rightists and welfarists.

I was amazed to learn that the Ringling-Barnum & Bailey Circus eliminated its animal acts for five years because of public pressure and an unrelenting campaign. I think most activists would be surprised to learn that, too. What are some examples of early strategies and campaigns that would surprise or benefit contemporary activists?
The first successful headline campaign for animal advocates was the workhorse campaign. For me, this campaign reveals the movement’s depth of commitment and creative use of multiple strategies. First, one must remember the context and the cruelty of the time in relation to workhorses. This is pre-automobile, so many thousands of horses moved people, goods and information on a daily basis in any city. It was also perfectly acceptable to work and beat a horse to death right out in the open. This movement successfully changed both the treatment toward horses and, equally important, attitudes about such cruelty. The campaign strategies were multiple and included laws, prosecution, raising public awareness through information and protests, and convincing the public to get involved through boycotts. Its success really established a precedent: now animal cruelty was in the public discourse.

What are some things you think early advocates did well that we can use today? And what are some things that our predecessors weren’t as skilled at that we can learn from and improve upon today?
Some of the things activists did well in the past are the legacies that activists today have inherited and still do well. For example, this is a movement that historically has advocated a diverse agenda which I view as a strength because it has a wide appeal and the potential to speak to a large audience. In addition, activists right from the start go after cruelty with multiple strategies. Animal advocacy has also been very effective at the grassroots level, building upon hard work and small but significant victories at the local level.

In the book, I discuss two areas where the movement struggled historically: the formation of alliances with other causes and internal division and squabbling. Now in some ways these are struggles common to many movements, but nonetheless important measures of a movement’s health and success. For example, internal ideological or strategic differences can invigorate a movement with new ideas and energy, or they can tear it apart. Fortunately, animal advocacy has successfully weathered many of its internal struggles and remained a family of activists, but historically, divisions have at times threatened and even undermined potentially successful campaigns, especially regarding animal experimentation. Activists should keep this in mind today. Different opinions and ideas should not be silenced, but how does a movement best embrace them?

In my work, I’ve found that people respond well to the truth about animal suffering and the fact we have the power to stop it. Yet throughout history and including today, some advocates claim the public doesn’t want to make what are considered “radical” changes. Do you think this more cautious attitude helps fosters people’s complacency—that if you tell them enough times that lifestyle changes are “hard” or “radical” they’ll actually believe it?
I agree truth is a powerful force and people often respond to it. I see it with my students all the time. Once the door of awareness is opened, it is really hard to shut it again. However, I do think animal advocates confront another entrenched and powerful societal force that also shapes human complacency: speciesism. I think activists need to understand, confront and deconstruct speciesism which is like racism, sexism, ageism, etc.

Speciesism is the idea of human superiority that defines animals as inferior “others” and thus rationalizes their oppression. Humans need to see our supposed superiority is a social construction made to justify exploitive and cruel treatment of nonhumans. This is why the conservative perspective sometimes wins because it does not really challenge the essence of the problem: speciesism. Until we get people to deconstruct this ideology that condones such behavior, piecemeal reforms will be the norm. But I am an optimist and, although I do think confronting speciesism is hard given where the public mindset currently is, we have taken great steps toward the dismantling of such ideas. If we can go from a time where beating a workhorse to death was okay to a time when the term “animal rights” is familiar to most people, I feel the optimism of an activist and an educator.

Related to that last question, many welfarists advocate small reforms that they believe reflect public sentiment and ultimately help animals more in terms of reducing the most egregious forms of cruelty. This has been the welfarist’s line for over a century now, and yet more animals are killed and harmed on behalf of human pleasure than ever before. Do you think welfare reforms have had a significant impact on the big picture?
I think we cannot deny the foundation that all forms of activism have built for us. Yes, undoubtedly some welfarist reforms have been woefully inadequate and leave major aspects of exploitation or cruelty intact. But let’s look at this historically. They began their efforts in a time where there was literally no context for public acceptance for their cause. The way I see the history of this movement is that it has slowly but surely chipped away at cruelty, often against overwhelming odds. And each time even a small victory was secured it represented a bigger victory in terms of establishing a precedent for greater change and influencing public attitudes.

Sometimes the victories achieved were piecemeal, but those small victories then inspired new activism for even better laws based on the precedent of the weaker law. Equally important, in my view, animal advocacy is really a vibrant dynamic between conservative and more radical activists. At some points, conservatives may have held more sway with the public, but radicals were always there pushing the movement to demand more, which over the years it did.

In addition, in an interesting way, conservative activists created a climate increasingly conducive for more radical demands and organizations. As the weaknesses of conservative reforms became more evident, radicals began to hold more influence with the movement and the public. The inadequacies of laws led to more defiant forms of activism, which we particularly see after 1975 when “animal rights” really emerged as the driving force of animal advocacy.

How has writing this book changed you?
I believe knowledge is power and empowering, and conversely ignorance disempowers and creates apathy. Writing this book took me on a journey to other times and places I did not know existed. I spent many a day looking at the photographs taken by humane agents in their cruelty investigations. In those images, I saw examples of our alleged “superiority” that would make the most callous person catch their breath, and I often went home with vicious headaches. Some images I will never forget and there were times I considered giving up on the whole process—it was just so hard. But in my journey to the past I also got to know and spend time with some of the most amazing, committed activists I have ever encountered. They changed who we are and how we interact with nonhumans. In other words, they changed history. As someone who teaches the history of social justice, I take that kind of inspiration into my classroom each and every day. I remind my students, and myself, that one person or a group of people can change the world for the better. And we all need to hear that message more often. Inspiration, hope, action.

Do you have any companion animals?
I have four companion animals, all rescued from various situations of neglect or abuse. Baxter is a mixed lab dumped in Tennessee, whose current favorite pastime is hiking. Zak, the elder kitty of the house, is a refugee from the streets of Philadelphia. Skip is a survivor of a steel leghold trap and now Wonder Cat on three legs. And Levi, abandoned with his littermates in an apartment to die, is now known as Mr. Affection.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is the founder and director of Compassionate Cooks (www.CompassionateCooks.com) and a Satya contributing writer.

 

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